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Textbooks

Recently there has been much debate over the rewriting of social studies textbooks in Texas. I have an opinion on this matter: I believe there are two sides to every story and to truly give an unbiased, honest account of history both must be presented. And both must be given fair consideration.

But onto what I was really thinking about when I sat down to write this…I was listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR today and a teacher called in complaining how his students in high school and previous students he’d had while teaching at the college level never read the textbooks. It got me to thinking, what is the purpose of a textbook?

There are several different ways teachers utilize textbooks. There are teachers who give a shallow overview of the subject matter and then expect students to read the textbook to actually learn the details or to memorize the dates, researchers, and outcomes of a hundred different research studies. There are teachers who think that textbooks are the spawn of Satan and find or create all their own assignments. This can leave students in a bind, particularly if the teacher does not bother to teach all the minutiae of the subject and students are left to spend long hours on the internet, in the library, or finding classmates to fill in the missing links.

And the teachers who are my personal favorite: those who teach in-depth every process needed to learn the desired skill. This doesn’t mean that they eschew textbooks; in fact it is quite the opposite. These teachers rely on the text to give a framework for teaching a class with a logical progression, students are told that the text is not required reading, but if they are confused by any topic that should be their first source for help; and the text gives regular homework assignments with an easy-to-find explanation of the underlying knowledge required to complete the problems.

Am I asking too much for the teachers to teach the subject in the full depth and breadth required for the class? Am I giving students an easy way out of the boring textbook reading we all despise [or just avoid]?

I don’t know the answer to the latter question, but in regards to the former, I don’t think that I am asking too much. If a teacher were hired simply to rate our academic progress based on performance on assignments, papers, or exams, then the first style of teacher (the one who gives a brief overview of the topic) would be perfect. If a teacher were paid to rate our ability to find references and teach ourselves, then the second style of teach would be sufficient. But as students we both need to learn the subject and to learn problem solving. The third style of teacher is the only one in a position to achieve both these goals. By actually teaching the student the teacher is able to direct him/her away from mistakes, common pitfalls, or other possible traps in the given subject matter. By creating/choosing assignments that are based on the underlying principals of the topic the teacher can test the students ability to problem solve and apply those principals to a problem that, on the surface, is seemingly unrelated.

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